Ritz & Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef, & the Rise of the Leisure Class
(Clarkson Potter, $26)
When the Savoy opened in London in 1889, “nobody had quite seen anything like it,” said Shinan Govani in the Toronto Star. The wedding-cake hotel was the city’s first with electric lights, elevators, and en-suite bathrooms. But the revolution the Savoy heralded would not be complete until Swiss hotelier César Ritz and French chef Auguste Escoffier joined the team. Over the next decade or so, the pair redefined luxury, said Moira Hodgson in The Wall Street Journal. At the Savoy, dining out became theater, French cuisine became fine cuisine, upper-floor suites became coveted, and aristocrats learned to rub elbows with theater stars, the nouveau riche, even women dining alone. Luke Barr’s entertaining dual portrait of the two men who engineered the transformation “reads like a novel, complete with cliffhangers,” but it’s also history that charts a real social change.
Both Escoffier and Ritz came from humble roots, said Talia Lavin in VillageVoice.com. The chef’s father had been a blacksmith, and Ritz grew up herding goats. In a book that “goes down as light as an aperitif,” we quickly sense how Ritz was fueled by his determination to escape his past. He first paired with Escoffier, another scrappy service-industry savant, at a grand hotel in Monaco. While Ritz pioneered “the-customer-is-always-right” service, Escoffier absorbed the culinary techniques that enabled him to wow fin-de-siècle London. Reading Ritz & Escoffier, “it’s hard not to drool on the pages” at the thought of Escoffier’s foie gras, or Pêche Melba.
Ritz and Escoffier’s run at the Savoy ended in scandal: The pair had been pocketing kickbacks from suppliers. Even so, their triumph has endured, said The Economist. “Though it is the glittering beau monde that draws the reader’s eye,” Ritz & Escoffier creates memorable protagonists out of two men who put themselves in the service of others. Look up “ritzy” in the dictionary today and you’ll see mention of a man who was so anxious that his large feet betrayed his peasant roots that he always wore shoes a half-size too small. The Prince of Wales and the Duke d’Orleans might not have cared, “but today it is not their names that are world-famous; it is his.”